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The River by Peter Heller

Published by Knopf on March 5, 2019

The River alternates a story of man against nature with a story of man against man. It is at times a wilderness adventure, a story of man against fire, and at other times a thriller that pits two young men against a human adversary. The novel delivers the pleasures of genre fiction while remaining a work of serious literature.

The young men have bonded over their love of the outdoors and their shared passion for reading. Jack and Wynn are Dartmouth students who work as wilderness instructors in the summer. At summer’s end, they are paddling along rivers and lakes on a journey to Hudson Bay. Guiding a canoe through storms and rapids is their idea of a vacation, risks balanced against serenity defining well-being: “life was about being agile in spirit and adapting quickly.”

Jack and Wynn eventually discover that they have a wildfire at their backs. They come across two men who are camping and try to warn them about the fire, but the men are too drunk and obnoxious to be concerned. Later, while paddling in the fog and rain, they hear a man and woman arguing. When the rain stops, they decide to go back to warn the couple of the approaching fire, but the man and woman are gone.

An undercurrent of tension comes to the forefront when they discover that the fire is larger and moving faster than they realized, placing them at risk as they approach the rapids that is their only route to safety. Before they can attack the rapids, however, they encounter the man they saw arguing with the woman. He explains that his wife disappeared during the night.

Was the woman attacked by a bear? Was she captured by the drunken men, who seemed to be exactly the sort of creatures who would kidnap a woman? The unanswered questions create a heightened sense of dread that carries the story forward.

Man against nature themes work when an author has a gift for describing both the beauty and the danger inherent in a wilderness setting. Peter Heller has that gift. Man against man themes work when the author creates a moral dilemma for a protagonist to confront. In The River, Jack suspects that a character wants to kill them and is in favor of killing the character first. Wynn acknowledges the possibility that the character is a killer, but is open to other interpretations of the available evidence, and is less willing to attack without clear proof of the character’s homicidal intent. Do they take the life of a possibly innocent person to assure their own safety or do they risk their own lives to spare someone who might be innocent?

Jack and Wynn are similar in many ways, but are differentiated by their philosophy — Wynn believes in the essential goodness of people, Jack believes in himself. The novel suggests that there are reasons to admire both philosophies: Wynn is content, at peace with the world; Jack is more likely to recognize and survive threats from others. Their harrowing experiences test their friendship by causing each to evaluate the other in a different light. Has Jack been masking a dark side that speaks to his character? Is Wynn so Pollyannaish as to place them both at risk?

The River combines the intensity of a thriller with the careful observation, astute characterization, and graceful prose of fine literature. At the end, the story produces the intense emotion that only an honest examination of life can deliver.


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